The Kids of Widney High – Act Your Age

When a group like The Kids of Widney High releases three albums of original songs with critical acclaim and support from artists like Mr. Bungle, it’s a healthy sign of diverse audiences with varied musical tastes. The Kids are an evolving collection of special education students at California’s Widney High, whose teacher, Michael Monagan, inspired them to write their own songs beginning with a class in 1989. For the last 15 years, students have come and gone, but the spirit of creativity and fun has grown, as has the popularity of the group’s recordings.
All that is wonderful, and the kids who have participated in the band over the years have shown remarkable learning breakthroughs and increased self-esteem. Yet, at the end of the day, it is important to evaluate The Kids’ latest album, Act Your Age, based on the quality of the music, not necessarily the considerable challenges the singers have overcome due to their learning disabilities. They come off as cute kids, and some of the songs are amusing, rollicking pop confections. “Life Without the Cow” opens the album with a big smile and lyrics like, “Life without the cow / No more milk or cheese / No more New York steak / No more fertilizer / No more barbecues / No more leather shoes / No more butter on biscuits / No more Ben and Jerry’s.” It’s a catchy song with a fun chorus sung by most of the students and a great way to start the album.
However, “I Make My Teachers Mad” doesn’t go anywhere beyond the declaratory title, which is repeated often throughout the song. The accompanying band of studio musicians and teachers plays well, but the lyrics and spirit of “I Make My Teachers Mad” fall flat. “Miss Understood” is a bit slower than its preceding tracks on Act Your Age, and a new singer handles the lead vocals. The guitars are pleasant, and Judy Rudin’s harmonica is refreshing. “Miss Understood” sounds like a mishmash of summer camp songs, which admittedly have never ranked highly with me, but it’s not a bad tune. “Two Faces of Fidel” benefits from a tropical mood and clever lyrics that touch on Cubans who fled to Miami, Fidel Castro’s corrupt policies, and the less evil side of communism in Cuba. “Two Faces of Fidel” is a smart song that makes good use of primary sources of communist speeches near the end of the track.
“Valentine’s Day” is sincere, tired, and, unfortunately, too sappy. It covers a common sentiment, the desire to be with someone special on Valentine’s Day, but the song doesn’t offer anything new on that concept. The album’s title track would fit well in a Sesame Street episode for an older audience of teens, with its guidelines for life: “Don’t let nobody provoke you / Don’t play with fire / Don’t pull the fire alarm / Don’t be a liar.” Later lyrics tackle suicide and positive self-image, still using the children’s musical approach. “E-L-V-I-S” runs with a rockabilly melodic approach and lets The Kids talk to and about “The King.” It’s another song that is cute but doesn’t stay with you long after you first hear it.
“Goin’ Home” doesn’t move much, but its horn-heavy sound shines through, with trumpet, trombone, and saxophones blasting. “Hold Me” finds The Kids in a warm, relaxed reggae vibe, with lyrics about adolescent love. This is a beautiful song, definitely a highlight of Act Your Age. The album’s closing track, “Santa’s in a Wheelchair,” is a mild rocker, as loud and busy as The Kids get on their third album. It is not a bad song, but its overdependence on the chorus doesn’t really go anywhere over three minutes.
I work with teenagers full-time at a nonprofit agency, so I know how rewarding it is to see children learn new skills, boost their self-confidence, and smile from their accomplishments. I applaud Michael Monagan for enabling his students to channel their energies through musical creation. As an educational exercise, The Kids of Widney High have recorded a successful third album. As a musical feat, Act Your Age leaves something to be desired. Some songs are winners that charmingly ring in your head later, but most of the tracks lose their impact quickly after they end. Nonetheless, if you like novelty records and want to support a good cause, Act Your Age may be ideal for you.